What Is the Purpose of Meditation?

mental health philosophy

My first meditation class was an hour long. 


We all sat up straight on a chair, against a wall or for the more seasoned practitioners, in the middle of the room on a cushion. It was broken into sections where we were first instructed to relax our bodies from the crown of the head all the way down to the toes. Then we moved on to concentration with our eyes--choosing a spot of wood grain on the floor to rest our vision. Then we did the same thing with our hearing, concentrating on the sound of the flute music from the stereo. For the last bit, we were each instructed to choose one of the first three activities to repeat on our own for the duration of the meditation. 


I recall that the experience was nice, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to get from it. Unbroken peace and happiness? A more thorough understanding of myself? The ability to sit for long periods of time? Enlightenment? I’m actually still not sure. 


Fast forward 10 years, and I’ve tried just about every meditation technique under the sun. Some have worked better for me than others, and my natural style has evolved as I’ve come to understand the bigger picture of what meditation can offer to me in my life. I’ve worked through many of my own preconceptions about meditation, which includes ideas such as: It’s boring! I’m not good at it if I can’t quiet my mind! And, wow, meditation is just so woo-woo! 


For those who crave a down-to-earth perspective on what meditation can offer and a clear-cut goal for what we’re working towards when we sit down to do nothing, I’m here to help! Let’s explore together what the heck meditation even is, the most popular meditation myths (and new ways of looking at them), and the ultimate purpose of meditation. Are you ready for some serious mind-bending around this topic? Let’s go! 


What Is Meditation?


The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. ~ Robin Sharma


There are two types of meditation. 


The first type of meditation is an activity that takes place in time--say the 30 minutes that you set aside to sit quietly or follow a guide. This type of meditation can be called self-inquiry and can be extraordinarily useful with the right goal in mind. The goal is to disrupt the momentum of thinking and behaving for long enough to become curious about our true nature. Setting aside regular time to meditate in this way gives us the opportunity to notice that we are not our thoughts--we are that which is aware of our thoughts. This piece of understanding often goes missing in daily life as we are programmed to let our thinking dictate our behavior and worldview. 


When we practice silent sitting, we are essentially telling our minds: Hey, buddy---you’re not in charge right now. You’re not running the show. You’re allowed to have whatever thoughts you have, but I will not be acting on them, believing in them outright or otherwise concerning myself with their content


With practice and over time, we find that the content of our mind gradually loses its stickiness and urgency in everyday life. We aren’t actively trying to control our thoughts, we are simply trying to understand who we are in relation to them. And when we fully understand that we are not our thoughts, it opens up a new realm of possibilities as far as our thinking and behavior goes. We become the master of our thoughts and not the other way around. What bliss! 


The second type of meditation is not an activity. It is the understanding that meditation is our truest nature. This means that we are always meditating, whether we realize it or not. There are only two options: To meditate knowingly, or to meditate unknowingly. 


We meditate knowingly when we understand that we are not the body--we are not a man or a woman or even a human being. We are that which is aware of the body and the world. To meditate knowingly means to understand that we are awareness rather than the body, and to abide in this understanding in how we think, feel and behave. In this way, meditation happens in all moments in life--as we wash dishes, cook meals, smell flowers, work on house projects, have conversations, drive to work, take showers, etc. It is to revel in the enjoyment of experience, no matter what the content of the experience is. 


Conversely, we meditate unknowingly when we believe ourselves to be the body. 


Meditation Myths Debunked


“I can’t meditate because I can’t quiet my mind.” 


Let’s face it: Our minds are assholes. Not just some of our minds--all of them. To say, “I can’t meditate because I can’t quiet my mind” is like saying, “I’m hungry but I’m not going to eat.” Erm, hello logic! 


But what if I told you that meditation isn’t about quieting our minds, it’s about noticing our minds? The value of sitting quietly isn’t about getting the mind to be still, because that’s not something we can control. The value is being able to not act on the impulse of our thinking--to get up and do X, to mention Y to so-and-so, to confront Z situation in a particular way. 


Our minds are designed to have thoughts. Usually, when our mind is empty of thoughts, we call it deep sleep (although we can’t even be sure we don’t have thoughts during that time, we only know that we don’t remember them). There is no expectation that thoughts should stop when we start meditating--that’s a fairytale. It can be that over time and with practice, the mind gradually changes it’s thought patterns to allow for more space between thoughts, but this is not the goal of the practice. The goal is simply to notice that we are not our thoughts. That’s revolutionary enough, without trying to force our thoughts out of the picture. 


Meditation is Boring


If meditation is boring, congratulations--you’re likely doing it right! 


We have been conditioned to believe that we are the content of our minds. When we sit quietly by ourselves, the content of our thinking is not in control, and this can make us feel bored, anxious or even panicky. But once we understand that we are not our thoughts, feeling bored, anxious or panicky is no longer a big deal. We can manage. And being able to manage these bits of uncomfortable feelings during meditation is a precursor for us being able to manage them in everyday life. 


Instead of feeling put off by the boredom we experience during meditation, what if we embraced it as part of the process of learning who we are? 


Meditation is Woo-Woo


Chanting mantras. Using japas malas prayer beads. Visualizing chakras and all that jazz. It can seem a little woo-woo and can put off those who don’t immediately understand the benefits. 


Here’s the thing: I actually agree with you on this one. I have done a fair amount of chanting, repeating mantras, circling my fingers around prayer beads for 108 repetitions, visualizing energy moving from the crown of my head into my pelvis with swirling colors of energy, etc, and the taste these activites left in my mouth was sort of like: What’s the point? 


Now, on one hand, I get it. These activities give our minds a bone to chew on so they aren’t running through the hamster wheel of what’s for dinner and who doesn’t like me and how will I ever accomplish what I want to in life. For some people, this provides relief from the tsunami of involuntary thinking that happens when we start to sit quietly by ourselves. 


But here’s the thing: These practices are not self-inquiry. They don’t necessarily produce or encourage the understanding that we are unlimited awareness experiencing a limited body. If anything, these activities offer a short respite from the trains of thought that otherwise plague us during our waking hours, but I haven’t personally experienced any significant understanding or change in how my mind functions afterwards by doing any of these activities. 


I also don’t want to discourage these practices for those who experience genuine benefits, because who am I to say that there is no value in these techniques? But for those who are put off by the seeming woo-woo of the meditation practice or community, I’m here to tell you: You’re not alone. Meditation is not inherently woo-woo, it’s just sometimes used by people who enjoy the woo-woo. And there’s nothing wrong with that. 


What it does mean is that it’s incumbent upon us to find the right influences and teachers for our goals, and to evaluate our techniques to ensure that we are experiencing more happiness more of the time. I mean, that’s the whole point of these meditation techniques to begin with! 


The True Purpose of Meditation


There’s an old saying that goes: I know that I am, but I don’t know what I am. The true purpose of meditation is to discover who we are. And the only way we can discover who we are is by discovering what we’re not. 


Meditation helps us evaluate what we are not: I am not my thoughts. I am not my sensations. I am not my sense perceptions. This is the totality of objective experience--thoughts, sensations and sense perceptions are all we ever know in life. Except one thing. There is one thing that is not a thought, sensation or perception: It is the I who is aware of these thoughts, sensations and perceptions. It is what renders our experience knowable and continuous. It is the one aspect of our experience that has never changed, while the flurry of thoughts, sensations and perceptions changes within it all the time. 


The purpose of meditation is to contemplate this in the face of our thoughts. To reconcile the fact that I am not the character my thoughts are trying to tell me I am. To understand that absolutely no thought can give us any information about the one who perceives it. 


As we begin to know ourselves as unlimited awareness, this directly correlates to the amount of happiness we are able to experience moment to moment. And why? Because happiness is the very nature of who we are! It is always with us, unchanged, ready to be realized but often eclipsed by the content of our experience. Meditation is a tool that enables us to now ourselves more fully. 


And because we are always meditating whether we realize it or not, our meditation practice doesn’t need to be limited to silent sitting. Meditation is any activity we pursue with the understanding of who we are. Life is meditation. We just don’t realize it or treat it that way when we believe to be a body.


Whatever you take from this article--be it starting a 10-minute daily silent sitting practice or simply acquiring a renewed perspective on meditation and life, the important takeaway is always happiness. And happiness is only realized when we understand the truth about who we are and how we function. 


Over To You! Do you have meditation myths you’d like debunked? Or experiences you’d like some new perspective on? Drop your experiences in the comment section below and let’s continue talking about what meditation can do for us! 


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